Growing older does not automatically mean that a nursing home is inevitable. Aging in place—the ability to live in your own home safely and independently as you age—is a goal for many seniors. Enter LIFE (Living Independence for the Elderly) Pittsburgh, an organization that provides comprehensive services to ensure that seniors receive the care that they need in order to remain in their homes for as long as possible. We spoke with Deanna Guarnaccio, outreach supervisor for the organization, about the scope of services offered by LIFE Pittsburgh and why socialization for seniors is a key component.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the overall goal of LIFE Pittsburgh?
Deanna Guarnaccio (Guarnaccio): Essentially, we are an alternative to nursing home care; our goal is to keep senior citizens at home where they are most comfortable while providing support and services so that they can continue to live as independently as possible.
NHM: What is the organization’s origin, and how is it connected to the PACE program (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly)?
Guarnaccio: LIFE Pittsburgh was started in 1999 by our Chief Executive Officer, Joann Gago. The LIFE Pittsburgh model of care comes from PACE, a national program pioneered in the 1970s. The idea was to keep people safe at home, rather than have frequent visits to the Emergency Room or wind up in a nursing home.
NHM: What are the eligibility requirements?
Guarnaccio: Participants must be at least 55 years old; live in our service area (which is the western half of Allegheny County, including North Hills); and be assessed as eligible for nursing facility level of care by the Allegheny Area Agency on Aging. Participants should have some kind of medical diagnosis or need to determine that they need extra support to live in the community. They also need to be financially eligible as determined by the Allegheny County Assistance Office or be able to privately pay and be able to safely live in the community with services from LIFE Pittsburgh.
NHM: Once a senior is determined to be eligible, what services do you offer?
Guarnaccio: Once they enroll, they receive all-inclusive, comprehensive medical care. They are seen by our medical doctors, our nurse practitioners, and any specialists from podiatry to dentistry to psychiatry. A registered nurse is assigned to them, and they get any medications and medical equipment through LIFE Pittsburgh.
Included in medical care is physical therapy, occupational therapy, recreational therapy and social services. We have MSWs and registered dieticians as well. All of these services take place out of one of our six adult day health centers. We provide transportation to the health centers, and we provide freshly cooked meals. There are structured group activities all day, from physical exercise to cognitive stimulation and bingo and trivia, all overseen by therapeutic recreation specialists. Participants receive recreation, socialization, and opportunities for independent activity, like reading or puzzles; there are also chapels that also serve as a hub for medical care.
NHM: Do you provide in-home services as well?
Guarnaccio: Yes, the other hub of our program is home services. This can be light housekeeping and laundry, up to and including three to four visits per day for personal care, medical prompting, assistance with getting in and out of bed, getting bathed and dressed, and more.
NHM: What is LIFE Pittsburgh’s approach to working with seniors?
Guarnaccio: It is a multidisciplinary team approach. The doctors, nurses, therapists, and social workers are all led by our center administrators. The real benefit of LIFE Pittsburgh is that all of these folks work on a team to provide care for each individual participant, each of whom has their own personalized plan of care that the team follows. The program is based on need; one participant may not need to come to the center daily, so our team does an evaluation every six months or as needed to determine the best care plan for that participant. The team really works closely with participants as to what will be best for them, which includes every member of the team at all times.
NHM: About how many seniors have you worked with since your inception, and how many seniors do you work with annually?
Guarnaccio: The last time I pulled the data, it was over 2,200 seniors, so it’s certainly more than that now. Our current census is almost 600 participants.
NHM: What makes LIFE Pittsburgh stand out from other senior programs?
Guarnaccio: The fact that we’re a comprehensive program; we take care of all of the needs, including medical, social and emotional. We really look at the overall picture of a participant, and we work on their quality of life, whether that is improving it or maintaining it to keep people safe, comfortable and healthy in the community where they want to be living in their own homes. The benefit of our program is that even if somebody right now doesn’t need a lot of services, as they get older, we can get more services in place so that they can continue to stay at home without losing their independence.
NHM: How do you take care of a senior’s social needs, and why is the socialization piece important?
Guarnaccio: Especially over the past two years, we’ve been exposed to what it’s like to be isolated at home with no one to really talk to. Some people are fortunate to have families at home, but a lot of seniors live alone, eat every meal by themselves, and maybe see neighbors if they are fortunate to live in a community with people around. Seniors are often very isolated. Whenever they come into the centers, they are greeted by staff and by participants. The way it works is if someone comes in every Tuesday, for example, they’re with the other folks that come in the same time, so they get to know each other, do activities, have lunch, share stories, and are able to form and maintain relationships.
NHM: How were you able to ensure senior safety during the pandemic?
Guarnaccio: We did shut our centers down for periods of time during the pandemic. We transitioned to 100 percent home-based care, ensuring that participants and staff were properly equipped with PPE. We tried to make some of those visits about that socialization piece. We also provided them with leisure activities to do at home. An interesting piece of data from the national PACE association from six months ago was that PACE programs across the country saw only 1/3 of the cases of COVID and deaths than those in nursing facilities.
NHM: What is the main message you’d like to convey about LIFE Pittsburgh?
Guarnaccio: That people deserve to live their best lives in the home that they love, and that we can provide support and services so that they can continue to live where they are most comfortable and happy, at home.
For more information, visit LIFE Pittsburgh at www.lifepittsburgh.org.